Debby Applegate on Polly Adler, with Gerald Howard

NOV 02, 2021 | 6:00 PM TO 7:15 PM



Online event


November 02, 2021: 6:00 PM-7:15 PM




Leon Levy Center for Biography



The compulsively readable and sometimes jaw-dropping story of the life of a notorious madam who played hostess to every gangster, politician, writer, sports star and Cafe Society swell worth knowing, and who as much as any single figure helped make the twenties roar.

Simply put: Everybody came to Polly's. Pearl "Polly" Adler (1900-1962) was a diminutive dynamo whose Manhattan brothels in the Roaring Twenties became places not just for men to have the company of women but were key gathering places where the culturati and celebrity elite mingled with high society and with violent figures of the underworld—and had a good time doing it.
As a Jewish immigrant from eastern Europe, Polly Adler's life is a classic American story of success and assimilation that starts like a novel by Henry Roth and then turns into a glittering real-life tale straight out of F. Scott Fitzgerald. She declared her ambition to be "the best goddam madam in all America" and succeeded wildly. Debby Applegate uses Polly's story as the key to unpacking just what made the 1920s the appallingly corrupt yet glamorous and transformational era that it was and how the collision between high and low is the unique ingredient that fuels American culture.

Debby Applegate won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for her first book, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, and is the author of Madam: The Biography of Polly Adler, Icon of the Jazz Age, forthcoming from Doubleday in September 2021.  She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University and lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Gerald Howard recently retired from Doubleday, where he edited two books by Debby Applegate: Madam and The Most Famous Man in America, her biography of Henry Ward Beecher. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications. He is currently at work on a biographical study of the editor and critic Malcolm Cowley. 

This is an online event. Please register here to participate via Zoom.